- Maria Jane Jewbury's The Oceanides, a series of poems published in the Athenaeum between December 29, 1832 and December 28, 1833, was initiated in response to the author's voyage to India in the fall of 1832. Jewsbury had recently married William Kew Fletcher and the couple were headed to Bombay so that Fletcher could assume a position as chaplain in the East India Company. The work takes on an elegiac status in retrospect since the last four poems were published after Jewsbury's death from cholera at Poonah on October 4, 1833, fourteen months after her wedding. It is not clear when Jewsbury's friends and editor in England learned of her death. There was no indication in the Athenaeum, until June of 1834, five months after the last poem in the series was published, that Jewsbury had died (Fryckstedt, "The Hidden Rill II," 468). William Fletcher was oddly impervious to the requests of his wife's family in the aftermath of her death. Her sister Geraldine wrote in 1836 of Fletcher's failure to send "the slightest communication" since Maria Jane’s death (Fletcher had remarried by this time). This standoff proved a serious deterrent to the preparation of a memorial since, according to Geraldine, her sister had taken "all her MS. papers and copies of all her fugitive pieces, which are so scattered many of them in most obscure periodicals now extinct, and done without her signature that it would be impossible to collect them all" (Gillett lxvi.). Geraldine continues, "It is a source of great mortification that we possess none of them for she either took with her the works to which she had contributed or else cut out her own papers, as the most convenient way of keeping copies of them all there, and every thing she might write subsequently are in the hand of Mr. Fletcher" (Gillett lxvi).
- Well before Jewsbury's death, three weeks before her thirty-third birthday, she had begun to establish herself as a working writer, initially through contributions to the Manchester Gazette, this despite the fact that she had assumed responsibility for the running of her father's house and the care of her younger siblings upon her mother's death in 1819. In a letter written in the early 1820s to Priscilla "Zillah" Watts (the wife of Alaric Watts, the editor of the Literary Souvenir to which Jewsbury contributed), Jewsbury depicted herself as an artist under siege, deeply envious of her friend's tranquil existence:
How different is my condition at this present! Three dear children are catechizing me at the rate of ten questions in every five minutes. I am within hearing of one servant stoning a kitchen floor; and of another practicing a hymn; and of a very turbulent child and unsympathetic nurse next door. I think I could make a decent paper descriptive of the miseries of combining literary tastes with domestic duties. (Gillett xvii-xviii)
- Jewsbury's first major publication was the 1825 Phantasmagoria, which she dedicated to William Wordsworth whose work she intensely admired. She sent him a copy of the first volume of the two volume work, writing:
It is about three years since I took up your poems, as a study; and since then they have been more or less my daily companions, ever able to afford me deep though tranquil delight. My poetical dedication is not hyperbolical; it is simply, literally true. (Gillett xx)
- She went on to single out Wordsworth's "Glen Almain," "She was a Phantom," "Ruth," "Tintern Abbey," "The Fountain," "The Highland Girl," and "Laodamia" as being a few of the many poems which particularly affected her, "sinking instantaneously into the heart" (Gillett xx). Wordsworth wrote back, Jewsbury soon after got to meet him, and a friendship was initiated between Jewsbury and Wordsworth’s daughter Dora. A prolonged illness suffered by Jewsbury in the spring of 1826 induced Wordsworth to write a peculiar sonnet in her honor, apparently inspired by her enthusiasm for stuffed birds. Wordsworth also addresses Jewsbury (as "Anna") in "Liberty," a sequel to an earlier poem, "Gold and Silver Fishes in a Vase."
- Before Jewsbury embarked on her ill-fated trip to India, she had published Letters to the Young (1828), Lays of Leisure Hours (1829), The Three Histories (1830), and scores of poems and essays published in annuals such as the Forget-me-not, the Literary Souvenir, the Amulet, and the Juvenile Forget-me-not. She clearly saw herself as part of a coterie of talented women writers, that included Letitia Landon and Felicia Hemans. She wrote Alaric Watts in January 1825 of her response to Letitia Landon's The Improvisatrice:
I have Miss Landon's "Improvisatrice" now before me. I have half read it, and, without one mean or jealous feeling, I understand what he felt who said, "The trophies of Miltiades will not let me sleep." I read it merely as poetry, and endeavour to forget that it was written by a woman, and then I am indeed delighted with the exuberance of genius poured out in every page. No one could suppose it to be the work of a young writer. There is in it a brilliant yet condensed vigour of imagery and expression which might well honour an older judgment. (Watts 2: 16)The admiration was mutual; Landon reportedly said of Jewsbury: "I never met with any woman who possessed her powers of conversation. If her language had a fault, it was its extreme perfection. It was like reading an eloquent book full of thought and poetry" (Watts 1: 179).
- Jewsbury had a close friendship with Hemans, and the character of Egeria in The Three Histories is based on Hemans. Chorley's Memorials of Mrs. Hemans (1836) excerpts passages from letters that passed between the two women, including the following somber musings by Jewsbury on her own oeuvre:
In the best of every thing I have done, you will find one leading idea—death: all thoughts, all images, all contrast of thoughts and images, are derived from living much in the valley of that shadow; from having learned life rather in the vicissitudes of man than of woman, from the mind being Hebraic. My poetry, except some half-dozen pieces, may be consigned to oblivion; but in all you would find the sober hue, which to my mind's eye, blends equally with the golden glow of sunset, and the bright green of spring, and is seen equally in the 'temple of delight' as in the tomb of decay and separation. I am melancholy by nature, cheerful by principle . . . (70-71)
- Hemans, who went into mourning after Jewsbury's death, spoke of her unrealized potential, commenting:
It [Jewsbury's death] hung the more heavily upon my spirits, as the subject of death and the mighty future had so many times been that of our most confidential communion. How much deeper power seemed to lie coiled up as it were in the recesses of her mind than was ever manifested to the world in her writings! Strange and sad does it seem that only the broken music of such a spirit should have been given to the earth, the full and finished harmony never drawn forth! (Ellis 35)
- Hemans' and Jewsbury's own emphasis on her preoccupation with death must be tempered, however, by attention to Jewsbury's sharp and witty essays, for example, her spot-on imitation of contemporary book reviews. In "First Efforts in Criticism," she begins one of two alternative reviews of Edgar Percival Clerimont's Love and Idleness ("in foolscap 8vo") as follows:
And who the deuce is Mr. Edgar Percival Clerimont? And what is the reason he cannot be satisfied with his own name?—for that the above lot of syllables was ever pronounced in christian baptism, passes our belief at any rate. Seriously we must put a stop to this most vile affectation. If men will rant in rhyme, let them rant away under their own natural cognomens of John Jenkins, or Sam Simkins, or whatever else it may be, instead of assuming some jingling, broken-backed quiz of a name, that tires one's jaw as much as the mastication of a hard crust. (Gillett 9)
- The last of Jewsbury's "First Efforts in Criticism" is a parody of the kind of omnibus review Robert Southey was noted for penning. She begins with a daunting list of six treatises on different aspects of mathematics, ranging from a volume on the alteration in the standards for weights and measures to a minute inquiry into the nature of the navigation tables. She ends the review by reference to a "disquisition of twenty pages on things in general, with particular mention of the Brazils, the Peninsular War, and Church History" (Gillett 18). Wordsworth—either because he had not read the volume carefully or because he enjoyed a good joke at a fellow poet's expense—sent the Phantasmagoria, in which this essay was included, to Southey who, unsurprisingly, was not amused.
- Jewsbury’s sense of humor, supported by a zest for adventure, is demonstrated by her "Extracts from a Lady's Log-Book," which complements The Oceanides by describing in detail the material realities of her passage to India in 1832. She writes:
[O]ur cabin, though one of the two best in the ship, for convenience, light, air, and size, has a rather ludicrous drawback: a good portion of some eighty dozen of poultry, ducks, geese, fowl, pigeons, &c., &c., have their local habitation in pens over our heads; and all day, and almost all night, they peck, crow, quack, gabble, and quarrel according to their several natures. The sound of their beaks resembles a shower of hail; they are of necessity cramped for room, and, like children, are always crying out for food. (Jewsbury, "Extracts" 777)
- J. W. Massie, who in 1822 followed the same route as Jewsbury—from Gravesend, Devonshire, to Madeira, around the Cape of Good Hope, to Ceylon—leaves a more fully detailed account of the journey and the stopping ponts along the way in his 1840 two-volume Continental India, but Jewsbury more vividly conveys the exhilaration and ennui of the voyage. She describes the insipidity of female occupation—"[Ladies] have, even here, chests of drawers to arrange, disarrange, and re-arrange; they have muslin to hem, caps to quill, their outfits to discuss, and new tunes to play until they become old" (Jewsbury "Extracts" 825). But she also describes moments of transcendent sublimity, eschewing fantasies of mermaids and men, of "rocks strewn with pearls," as too fanciful to be associated with a sea that strikes her as "too grand, too stern, too real, to be connected with anything that is pretty " (Jewsbury "Extracts" 825).
- The stern nature of the sea would have been manifestly apparent to anyone traveling on an East Indiaman ship, a type of vessel that was not well suited for human cargo. In response to English tax assessments, which were based on a ship’s beam with no regard for its length or depth, the East Indiaman ship was designed with a hull too long for its breadth, and sailed very poorly as a result (Miller 125). These ships lurched and rolled in a manner that inevitably produced seasickness in novice travelers. Thomas Twining, who boarded an East Indiaman at Deal in 1792, wrote, "I was scarcely able to stand without laying hold of some fixed object. I also became exceedingly oppressed by a close suffocating air, and by a sickening offensive smell, to which I know nothing comparable, and can only designate it by its usual appellation on board—the smell of the ship" (Miller 124). Genteel British travelers like the newly married Fletchers attempted to keep up the amenities of polite society. Well-heeled passengers furnished their cabins before coming on board with sofas and even pianos provided by dock-side purveyors who bought parlor accouterments from arriving passengers and resold them to travelers poised to embark. But passengers had to nail their tables and chairs to the floor in anticipation of their ships’ erratic movements. Similarly, voyaging ladies and gentlemen—at least those who were not retching in their cabins—dressed for meals at regular hours, despite the dinnerware’s tendency to fly into their laps (Miller 123-130).
- In one of the most dramatic accounts of onboard disequilibrium, the Reverend Hobart Caunter described a storm in the 1830s which swept a woman passenger out of her cabin and carried her into the main cabin "head foremost . . . dripping like a mermaid, her hair hanging about her shoulders in thin strips" (qtd. in Wild 76).
- Monster waves were only one of the many dangers posed by the passage to India. The risk of pirates, enemy men-of-war, and privateers was so great that all male passengers were expected to study the quarter bill, a list which assigned each man on board an action station he was expected to commandeer in the event of an attack (Miller 128). And shipwrecks were a well-chronicled reality. One of the more chilling shipwreck narratives, an account of the Grosvenor, which went down in 1782, described the survivors’ largely unsuccessful attempt to make it to the nearest Dutch settlement (105 people disappeared into the hinterland of Africa), and the rumored fate of some of the women on board:
It is said by officers at the Cape that some of those unfortunate females who survived the shipwreck had it in their power to return; but, apprehending that their place in society was lost, and that they should be degraded in the eyes of their equals, after spending so great a portion of their lives with savages, who had compelled them to a temporary union, they resolved not to forsake the fruits of that union, and abide with the chiefs who protected them. (qtd. in Miller 141)
- Given the grim reality and rumored possibilities, Jewsbury’s prose account of her journey seems relatively ebullient. On the day she lost sight of the British coastline—"the last faint trace of the Devonshire coast is melted into the sky"—typically an occasion for wistful thoughts of family and friends left behind, she wrote, "[T]he beauty and novelty of the scene charmed away sadness" (Gillett 89).
- Despite her rejection of bejeweled oceanic mythology, of mermaids and "rocks strewn with pearls," she named her series of poems about the voyage after the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, the nymphs of the ocean. Apollodorus lists seven of these entities: Asia, Styx, Electra, Doris, Eurynome, Amphitrite, and Metis. Hesiod's account of them brings the list to forty-one and includes Asia, Calypso, Cerceis, Eudora, Europa, Galaxaure, Hippo, Ianthe, Polydora, and Xanthe, among others. They mostly have little distinct identity except for the few who were lovers of gods and men (for example, Metis was swallowed by Zeus to produce Athena). Oceanic mythological figures were part of the culture Jewsbury left behind in England. King George III was figured as the monarch of the sea on a coach decorated with tritons (Plumb 179), and Josiah Wedgwood marketed cameos, intaglios, and statues featuring Neptune, Triton, Nereus, and Nereide. They were also part of the on-board entertainment for East Indiaman passengers. The festivities revolving around the crossing of the equator included the ceremonial shaving and dunking of travelers who were crossing for the first time, a celebration overseen by a sailor dressed as King Neptune (Miller 134). Jewsbury’s poems, however, do not involve themselves with the particular workings of the obscure Oceanides; rather the title’s allusion to these mythological entities yokes loosely together a series of poetic meditations on the experience of transport and exile.
- The poems that make up The Oceanides were published serially in the Athenaeum, a journal edited from 1830 to 1846 by Charles Wentworth Dilke, who had launched a vigorous campaign against literary puffery. His aim was, according to Leslie Marchand, "to establish the reputation of the magazine as a critical review of complete independence, free from the warping influences of politics, religion, business, and so far as possible, from the bias of personal friendship or enmity" (98). Jewsbury was a regular reviewer in the early 1830s; her known contributions to the journal from June 1830 to the end of 1831 are listed in an appendix to Monica Correa Fryckstedt's study of her life and career (Jewsbury’s contributions extended beyond 1831, but the marked file of the Athenaeum upon which Fryckstedt bases her list does not include editor’s identifying markings for 1832 issues).
- The poems included in The Oceanides series are linked through their mapping of Jewsbury’s route—the first poem records the narrator’s last glimpse of the English mainland; the second finds the ship off the coast of Teneriffe; in the seventh poem the narrator is circling the Cape of Good Hope; the ninth poem describes Ceylon, close to the endpoint of the journey; and, in the last poem, the narrator bids farewell to the sea, presumably from a point on the Indian mainland. The poems are also unified by the temporal arc of Jewsbury’s journey—from the voyage’s beginning on September 19, 1832 to its end, according to the date of the last poem, on March of 1833. It is precisely a sense of temporal and geographic remove that Jewsbury’s poetic sequence movingly enacts. The poems record the narrator’s changing attitudes to the physical presence of the ocean, as well as to the exile that the ocean’s looming presence constantly recalls. In the first poem of the sequence, the ship is figured as a moving city "Freighted with business, woe and weal / Freighted with England’s sons and daughters," and despite the encircling presence of the sea, reminders of home are everywhere:
The sea is round them: many a week
They o’er that deep salt sea must roam,
And yet the sounds of land will break
The spell, and send their spirits home;
The cry of prisoned household bird,
Shrill mingling with the boatswain’s call;
With surge and sail, the lowing herd,
And hark—street music over all!
- A canary in a cage or farm animals that Jewsbury herself heard trampling outside her cabin easily conjure up the parlor trappings and pastoral landscape of the country left behind. By the eighth poem in the sequence, however, there is a clearer sense of estrangement. The vantage point provided by the narrator’s tropical locale renders the traditions and costumes of England offputting and uncomfortable:
The blazing Christmas fire
Is but a name of cheer,
As from foe or demon dire
Should we shrink, if it were here:
And robes defying cold,
Are but treasures in the North;—
From the muslin’s snowy fold
We languidly look forth.
- The Oceanides claims attention as a poetic sequence—by definition, a grouping of lyric poems which interact as an organic whole (Rosenthal and Gall 9)—rather than as a series of discrete poems on related subjects strung together like beads on a wire. The series portrays a narrator who, pitched into a life-altering situation—set sail on a forbidding sea in a vulnerable vessel—records her shifting emotional responses in seven- or eight-syllable simply rhymed lines of quiet, and sometimes incantatory, beauty. Jewsbury’s first claim to lasting literary fame may be founded on the wit and intelligence of her essays, reviews, and letters. But the unusual historical circumstances that inform The Oceanides as a whole, and the lyrical charm of the individual poems, make them a moving and memorable culmination of a short but distinguished literary career.
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